Battle lost to ordain the female ‘Rabbas’

By Paul Berger, March 11, 2010
Sara Hurwitz is the first, and for now the last, woman to be called “Rabba”

Sara Hurwitz is the first, and for now the last, woman to be called “Rabba”

An Orthodox rabbi has backed down in his fight to give women he ordains the title "Rabba".

Rabbi Avi Weiss founded Yeshivat Maharat in September to train female rabbinic authorities, giving them the title "Maharat", an acronym meaning "leader in Jewish law, spirituality and Torah".

But in January, Rabbi Weiss announced that the term "Maharat" was not widely recognised. So he changed the title of Sara Hurwitz, the first woman he ordained last year, and an employee of his Bronx synagogue, from "Maharat" to "Rabba".

The new name caused a controversy in the Orthodox world.

Though Rabbi Weiss's graduates do not carry out all the functions of a rabbi - such as leading prayer services - the action was perceived as a step towards legitimising female Orthodox rabbis.

The strictly Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America condemned the move. And NY Jewish Week published rumours that Rabbi Weiss faced expulsion from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the world's largest Orthodox rabbinical association.

However, late last week, the RCA released a statement saying that, following consultation with Rabbi Weiss, Yeshivat Maharat would not confer the title "Rabba" on graduates.

"We are delighted that we have been able to resolve this matter in adherence with Torah principles and in a spirit of co-operation for the sake of peace and unity within our community," the statement read.

The RCA also released a letter from Rabbi Weiss to RCA president Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, in which he admitted that the switch from "Maharat" to "Rabba" had "precipitated a level of controversy in the Orthodox community that was neither expected nor intended".

Rabbi Weiss confirmed that he would not confer the title "Rabba" on graduates of Yeshivat Maharat. However, he did not say that he would change Rabba Hurwitz's title back to "Maharat".

Instead, he called a meeting with his congregation at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale on Saturday afternoon.

About 200 people showed up to hear Rabbi Weiss explain that Rabba Hurwitz would remain a "Rabba". He also said that graduates from Yeshivat Maharat would have the title "Maharat", but that individual congregations could choose whatever title they wanted.

He also told the congregation that there had never been any danger of his expulsion from the RCA.

Rabbi Weiss did not respond to calls for comment.

But Rabbi Saul Berman, a long-time friend and colleague, said it was easy for Rabbi Weiss to drop the title "Rabba" for future graduates of Yeshivat Maharat.

"He didn't have a principled commitment to the title as much as he does have a principled commitment to training women with positions of leadership within Orthodox synagogues," Rabbi Berman said.

Analysis: Miriam Shaviv

Not the end of the road

Is this decision not to confer on newly ordained women the title “Rabba”, after all, a defeat for Rabbi Avi Weiss — an indication that the American Orthodox world is simply not ready for women rabbis?
Not so fast.

Rabba/Maharat Sara Hurwitz received her ordination almost exactly a year ago. For almost an entire year, she fulfilled her rabbinic duties in Rabbi Weiss’s congregation with very little comment from most of the American Orthodox establishment.
Remarkably, they seemed prepared to let a de-facto Orthodox woman rabbi pass almost without comment — until he changed her title.

“Maharat” — yes. “Rabba” — no. It simply sounded too close to “rabbi” and made it impossible for the majority of the American Orthodox world to continue pretending Maharat Hurwitz was not, in fact, a full-fledged rabbi.

The fact is, though, that Rabbi Weiss is going to continue ordaining Orthodox women rabbis (called Maharats). Sara Hurwitz is going to continue functioning as a rabbi (whatever her honorific). And the Orthodox world is not going to say much about either of these things — because the problem doesn’t seem to be with the job description but with the title. The main principle, this row over wording shows only too clearly, has been accepted.

A decade or two down the line, there will be Maharats serving congregations, schools and university campuses across the American continent. And if one of them then decides to call herself “Rabba”, well, I’d be surprised if anyone even notices.

Miriam Shaviv is the JC’s foreign editor

Last updated: 3:37pm, March 11 2010